USB is arguably one of the most important hardware standards in computing history. It replaced PS/2 as well as serial and parallel ports, and it first shipped in volume on the first Apple iMac. Soon, USB will soon experience another upgrade - much like it did with USB 2.0 and 3.0 - except this time USB 3.1 and Type-C will be making it to market.
Andrew Cunningham outlined the future of USB in an Ars Technica article last week. USB Type-C is a bit of an odd duck. It is the first USB to be reversible (and looks very similar to Apple's lightning port) and while there are no devices currently incorporating this design (except the recently announced Nokia N1 Android tablet), it's likely that devices will soon incorporate Type-C. USB 3.1 will also be making its way to market, but it's not clear that all Type-C connectors will need to support 3.1 speeds. President and COO of USB-IF John Ravencraft explains.
I think a lot of people associate performance and power all with this cable and connector," said Ravencraft, "which in one sense is fine, but in another sense it's bad, because it's not the cable and connector. You have to have 3.1 silicon in the host and in the device. If you have power delivery, you have to have it on the host and the device, and then obviously if you want Type-C you at least have to have the receptacle on both ends for Type-C.
USB 3.1 will have a theoretical transfer rate of 10Gbps (compared to the 5Gbps of USB 3.0). This is considerably slower than Thunderbolt 2 (20Gbps) and it's successor (40Gbps). Nevertheless, for most tasks, USB 3.1 will be sufficient.
Electronics manufacturers could conceivably implement Type-C connectors with USB 2.0 speeds. This allows them to make devices that don't require a separate USB 3.1 controller while still retaining the benefit of a reversible connector. Also, Type-C will also feature "Alternate Mode" which can be used for sending non-USB data and adding "additional features."
When will devices start shipping with Type-C? It is not clear. But, rumour has it that Apple's forthcoming Retina Macbook Air will eliminate most of its ports except the MagSafe charger. It's rumoured to include a Type-C USB connector, which is plausible considering Apple has been at the forefront when adopting new hardware standards. If this is true, one can assume that PC makers will follow suit but including Type-C in their Ultrabooks.